When we travel, we like to use public transport, but last month we took two fairly long taxi rides, as well as a bus ride, a hike, and a brief motorcycle jaunt to Tlacalula and Yaguil, Oaxaca, and the two taxi drivers we met inadvertently taught us as much about our world as did the sites we visited.

Each ride took some time, and since we’re glad to practice our mediocre Spanish, we asked the drivers about their families and told about ours. When we mentioned that our children are living on the East coast and in Costa Rica, while we live in California, our first driver, Gustavo, expressed surprise and concern for us — why are they so far away? Are there problems? This man could barely conceive of family being separated by thousands of miles. (His attitude reminded me of an entry in Lillian Schlissel’s Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey from around 1840, expressing dismay that a friend might move 12 miles away, let alone all the way across the country. ‘Why would anyone do such a thing?’)

But Antonio, our taxi driver on the return trip, didn’t wonder at all. He was impressed at what our children were doing, and he was proud that his own daughter was studying languages at the university and planned to spend next fall in California and then the Spring in France. He was working hard to help her afford it.

So, if we were to make a sweeping generalization about these men, we could say that the first driver was living in the local, traditional world, and the second one in the modern, global one.

It’s obvious which world I live in, but it’s not obvious that it’s completely better.

After all, my wife and I would really love our children to be closer to home. Why is it now common for so many Americans (and Canadians, Chinese, Australians, etc.) to send their children across the country, and then, across the world, to study or work, or just travel? Obviously, to see that the world offers us different climates, cultures, peoples, lifestyles. We believe travel helps our children be more independent, that it broadens their horizons, expands their knowledge, gives them new tools for career and understanding. I for one have little doubt this is true . . . just as reading can bring us to new worlds, just as my own travels have done.

But what do we lose? Time together. Physical presence. And perhaps, over time, a loosening of our bonds. We might fall in love, get a new job, postpone visiting, spend less and less time together, and then stop altogether.

This is probably what the first driver feared — that he’d lose control over and perhaps the love of, and connection, to his children. But, trying hard not to pontificate, we said that this could happen in any case, and it’s hard to believe that he can love his kids any more than we do ours.

Nearness is not merely a physical thing — we can in fact be alienated from someone right near by, and we can feel great affection for someone far away. Sadly, there are people who won’t talk with family members who live in the same town. And on the other hand, thanks to modern technology, we can see and talk with our family and friends almost constantly (something that can hinder the independence we want to provide our children so that they can explore on their own).

Despite the difference in the two men’s attitudes, I found both of them to be very nice, and I guess that transcends the issue of whether one lives in the “traditional” or “modern” world.

So, yes, we paid some money to these taxi drivers, but we had an invaluable experience being with them. We shared an hour of conversation with them, and I hope they feel we gave them something meaningful beyond the pesos. That’s travel.

By the way, “taxi” is a Greek word meaning “travel,” and kalo taxithi is the way Greeks wish you good travels, bon voyage (as the French would say). We are always traveling, even at home — in dreams, books, television, the internet, and in our imaginations. You do not have to travel very far to realize that each of us is already on the trip of a lifetime.


As we set out

As we set out, the world is open, or as one peculiar philosopher said, “the world worlds.”

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I am an American citizen. When I look at our neighborhood’s July 4th parade, I see the cute kids riding their flag- and streamer-bedecked bikes and trikes, riding down the street as the elderly folk in their chairs, curbside, cheer them on; the potluck and barbeque meal we all share down on the corner, etc. How very pleasant.


What makes this scene remarkable is that it raises all kinds of local-global questions — not the least of which is, why does my friend Tony parade down the street carrying an American flag while dressed in the British Union Jack, representing his country of birth. After all, Britain is the country against which we Americans fought the Revolution that we now celebrate!

And why do I say ‘we Americans fought,’ when it wasn’t me, and in any case, my ancestors arrived a century after that conflict. In fact, our neighborhood July 4th celebration is filled with people who have moved here from around the world in their own lifetimes — I am sure the foreign-born locals vastly outnumber the descendants of the Mayflower or the American Revolution. This in itself is worth celebrating.

But as my neighbors and I celebrate, what can we say about the wholeness of American neighborhoods in general? Here, I walk down the street almost every day and greet the neighbors, some of whom — but hardly all — do the same thing. When we gather for this holiday or for Halloween (which draws hundreds from beyond our neighborhood to our streets), we see old and young, gay and straight, small and large families, single moms and single dads, all friendly and polite, glad to share this time, but ready to return home and to other people and activities. Some of us are best friends with each other, and some are merely courteous. Some of us meet for coffee or wine or parties frequently, and some are almost complete strangers to me.

When I’ve described this neighborhood and event to people elsewhere, many have been impressed by my fortunate community’s apparent cohesion and bemoan the fact that they don’t know their neighbors at all. Unfortunately, some people experience alienation and even fear of neighbors. If you live in a crime-ridden area, trust is in short supply. This is true around the world, but it is also true even in many relatively safe parts of the U.S., where individualism is so strong, classes so divided, political antagonism so rife, and geographic mobility so common, that many of us don’t know our neighbors at all.

In fact, according to the 2017 US General Social Survey, 34% of Americans never socialize with their neighbors — and that percentage that does is in steep decline. One third of Americans — this is not necessarily the same group — also live alone.

But my neighbors and I are part of the remaining 66% who do socialize with each other, even if superficially. And the truth is, we struggle to maintain community. Maybe we even gather out of a nostalgic sense of neighborhood we believe should be the case. Living near someone does not mean being close to them — we may be emotionally much closer to someone 5000 miles away.

What’s more, the partisanship in our country is clearly driving some of us further apart. We neighbors participating in this year’s events recognize that our area is strongly divided by political allegiance, so, meeting together is a conscious, political act.

And yet, we today celebrate the U.S. for allowing us (some of us) to come from all over the world to be together. While the U.S. has had immigration quotas since 1924, President Trump is determined to limit immigration anew. But our small 100-home neighborhood includes people from Spain, France, Poland, Chile, China, Peru, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Iran, Germany, and Mexico. And, while I sometimes wave the flag of the United Nations (despite its great flaws), many of these immigrants fervently wave the U.S. stars and stripes (despite its great ones).

Meanwhile, their relatives and former neighbors back home in “the old country” might be busy celebrating their own national holidays. I’ve been fortunate to celebrate Bastille Day in France, and I expect to celebrate Mexican Independence this Fall.

But here on this day, July 4th, we celebrate the US Declaration of Independence from King George and Great Britain. All too often, we eat hotdogs and other unhealthy things, forgetting about that dramatic, revolutionary act of 1776. The writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence were, perhaps, traitors to their country, Great Britain, but they claimed that ‘government is instituted to serve the needs of the governed and that if it fails in that respect, that the government should be abolished and a new one formed.’ Consistent with this sentiment, some of us today are seriously asking whether California should declare its independence from “King Donald” and the United States America. I do not know what will happen, but I hope my neighbors and I can continue to celebrate this somewhat “corny” but valuable get-together.